It will probably shock no one to discover that Miss Manners does not care for obscenity.
Etiquetteers are known to be a fastidious lot. The merest hint that the human body is capable of functions other than writing thank-you letters is supposed to make their hair curl.
Miss Manners believes that those of her noble profession have the duty to foster this belief. The ones who succumb and start issuing "etiquette rules" about how to offer intense hospitality to strangers, or the correct way to serve illegal refreshments, are not only betraying the cause but, Miss Manners believes, taking the fun out of life.
We have here a society crammed with people who have a desire to shock others and nearly devoid of those who are willing to register shock. "Epatez les bourgeois" has become the rallying cry of the bourgeoisie. As a result, people who are shocking are running out of audiences, and since there are, in fact, limitations to the number of things the human body can do, of ideas.
It was Miss Manners' dear Mamma who pointed out to her (once she was safely grown-up) that parents who take calmly all of their children's attempts to shock them are setting themselves up for trouble. "The children will just have to keep going until they succeed," she warned. "If necessary, they will figure out that parents who can't be shocked by licentiousness can be shocked by prudery. Wild children can shock rigid parents, of course, but the reverse works just as well. People who oblige their children by going to pieces at the first naughty word will save themselves a lot of heartbreak."
Sooner or later, then, we really are all shockable. Yet it is considered desirable nowadays to pretend that one is totally unflappable, with a reckless disregard for how difficult this makes life for children, artists, apprentice rebels and others eager to get a rise out of someone.
Miss Manners is in favor of bringing back the cry for smelling salts when someone violates accepted standards of taste. For those with a smaller dramatic range, there is the raised eyebrow and the terse little comment, "I don't care for that" or "We don't talk that way in this house."
The tedious people on both sides of the question will break in at this point, Miss Manners is well aware, to demand to know either why something "everybody knows about" can be considered obscene in any situation, or how obscenity can be precisely defined so that it may be outlawed everywhere.
These people do not understand the importance of context. Time, place, person and situation are all involved in setting a standard of what is acceptable and what offensive. What is natural behind a closed bathroom door is revolting when the door is open.
Dutiful parents teach this by explaining, "Yes, dear, that is the correct name for it, but it's not the term we use in polite society" and "I know that's what I said when the tool box fell on me, but it's still not an acceptable word for the dinner table" and "I don't doubt that all your friends think it's chic, but I find it offensive."
Having to juggle all these factors to figure out what is appropriate where is what makes it impossible to define precisely what is obscene where. Yet everybody develops enough of a feel for it to recognize what is offensive -- most of all those who wish to offend. Otherwise, they wouldn't know how to attempt it.
Miss Manners therefore tends to oppose codifying such matters into law. As one who has long been in the business of telling people things they may not want to hear, she is extremely wary of official limitations.
It seems to her that the subtler and more flexible discipline of etiquette is better equipped to handle matters of taste, setting limits through social disapproval. But it requires the citizens to do their part by admitting to being shockable.
Q. My wife and I are on different beds on different floors. We are considering coauthoring a novel. Do you have some suggestions or commentary?
A. Yes. Miss Manners suggests you learn to spin narratives with more apparent point to them.
Q. Please advise if I am correct in using my business stationery for my own personal letters or needs. I own the business, so I felt it was okay, but I do have doubts.
A. Owning the business absolves you from the ethical violation practiced by most people who write their business letters on office paper. You are not stealing from your employer, for which Miss Manners congratulates you.
However, you are still committing an etiquette violation. Personal correspondence should not be made to look as if it had an official tone to it related to your work. By issuing an invitation on business paper, you make it seem as if you are courting people for a professional reason; by writing your children's school notes on it, you suggest that you will file an unfair labor practice complaint if the excuse is not accepted.
Q. I was invited to spend the weekend with my good friend George at his parents' farm. Both of us are gay, but we are not involved with each other. I got along quite well with the family, finding lots in common between us. They were very hospitable, with a big country breakfast and family picture-taking.
The first afternoon I sensed a problem in the household mood. It turned out that George's father chose that day to ask him if he was gay, and the results were disastrous.
George's siblings were called in from 20 miles away for a family meeting. I found myself tactfully ensconced for five hours in the upstairs bedroom during the emotional accusations.
As the outcome was not pleasant, George decided to remove himself and me from the obviously distraught household to his sister's house in town. As we left, I bid a very brief thank-you and goodbye to George's parents.
I suspect that on top of their emotional upheaval, they were rather embarrassed. But I also suspect they think they were tricked into believing I was an all-American, clean-cut guy. I refuse to be indicted for either my homosexuality or George's. I'm confident that there was nothing in my behavior that caused George's father to ask the question.
I would like to send a thank-you note. Should I just stick to the "thank you" and pretend the unpleasantness never happened?
A. Having been a model of discretion in a difficult situation, you would be foolish to attempt to intrude now into a family matter. Your orientation was not an issue here. Miss Manners assures you families are quite capable of having genuine tolerance for friends on issues that drive them crazy when their own relatives are involved.
Your thank-you letter should express your pleasure in their hospitality, as well as your regret that you were in the way at an awkward time. By emphasizing the former rather than the latter, you subtly remind them how pleasant things are when the household functions normally.